CAGUAS, PUERTO RICO — Puerto Rico captured the attention of the world this summer when a movement to force the resignation of the island’s governor Ricardo Rosselló mushroomed into an unstoppable force. First thousands and then tens of thousands and finally as many as a half-million people rallied and march in the capital city of San Juan.
Rosselló had presided over draconian cuts in government spending to appease the debt-ridden island’s U.S. creditors. His bumbling administration had been of little help when Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing upwards of 3,000 people. But the final straw for Rosselló’s long-suffering constituents came when hundreds of pages of private chats between the governor and his top aides were leaked to journalists. They revealed an arrogant, immature leader who attacked Puerto Rican activists, rival politicians and members of his own party. The chats also included homophobic and misogynist jokes, which Rosselló constantly encouraged, and, most unforgivably, there were jokes mocking Hurricane Maria victims.
The Verano Boricua, or Puerto Rican Summer, was underway and no amount of tear gas or baton-wielding cops could stop it. When Roselló, the son of a former governor, announced his resignation on July 24, the crowds roared. He was succeeded by Justice Minister Wanda Vásquez, a member of his own party who vowed not to run for office when elections are held in 2020.
The protests subsided and the international media moved on to the next big headline-grabbing event. It was supposed to be the end of the story. But for some Puerto Ricans it was just the beginning as they looked to build power from below through popular assemblies not beholden to the island’s corrupt political parties.
There are now roughly 50 popular assemblies that hold public meetings in 20 cities and towns. They are promoted through social media and word of mouth. In Caguas, a city of 140,000 people just south of San Juan, hundreds of residents gather every other Sunday at dawn in the center of town to discuss national and local political questions. Among the participants are university students, unionized workers, professionals, long-time activists and community elders.
Food is shared. There are recycling initiatives and sometimes artistic performances as well. The gatherings, which last from two to three hours, begin like this: people arrive with their beach chairs, register their attendance and then hammer out an agenda. The assembly splits into working committees and later regroups to hear report-backs from the committees and discuss next steps.
A recurring question that hovers over these discussions is how to harness the energy that moved so many Puerto Ricans to take to the streets to demand Roselló’s resignation and turn it into political and social transformation. Some asambleistas propose trying to win approval of a new constitution, others are looking to back radical independent candidates in next year’s elections, others are pressing the issue of solving Puerto Rico’s political status and moving toward independence. Some objectives are long-term, while others are short-term.
In one recent Caguas assembly meeting, there were discussions about how to collectively support a call for a general strike proposed by radical feminists if Gov. Vázquez failed to call a state of emergency that would address the upsurge in killings of women in recent years.
“We want a country that is safe for all women,” said Zoan Dávila, 31, a member of the Feminist Collective Under Construction which is organizing for the general strike. “That’s why it’s important to discuss as people not only forms to remedy this, but also the importance that the state performs its duties.”
Some assembly participants are urging more of a focus on local issues. “I understand that the people’s assemblies must have things that pertain to the whole island, but they [also] must be more related to the needs of my town,” said Nancy Santiago Candelaria, 60, who proposed the assembly work to address the concerns of downtown car owners who are being ripped off by privatized parking meters that funnel 96 percent of revenues to the company that runs them and 4 percent to the city of Caguas.
“If there’s a parking meter in a public sidewalk, that money must go to the municipality, so that the municipality has improvements,” Santiago Candelaria said.
The issues addressed by the people’s assemblies vary from one locale to the next. In Utuado, a rural town in the mountainous central region of the island, residents are concerned about deteriorating service at their town’s one hospital, which has discontinued its overnight shift. In case of a medical emergency, locals now have to travel about 30 minutes down the mountains to the coastal city of Arecibo. Assembly participants are currently discussing whether to organize a protest to demand the re-opening of the hospital’s third shift.
In Luquillo, a coastal town on the east side of the island, the people’s assembly has organized protests in San Juan in opposition to a government rezoning plan that would allow industrialization and commercial development in residential and environmentally protected areas. This could set a precedent that will be replicated in other parts of the island, further pushing people out of their communities.
The assemblies began in the first half of August and are now moving to appoint spokespersons from each city or town to continue discussions on a shared national platform and how to continue building the movement from the ground up. Jennifer Mota Castillo, 33, a personal trainer and marketing consultant, is a spokesperson for one of the San Juan assemblies who also travels to Caguas to stay in contact with organizers there.
“It’s very tiresome, but is a task that someone has to do,” she told The Indypendent. “From here, within the next years or the next decade, is going to emerge the Puerto Rico that we want and are going to design together, from the people, from below.”
The assemblies face many challenges. Sustaining a large volunteer-based movement whose members have differing objectives while operating outside of any established institutions is not easy to do. Hurricane Dorian’s brush with the island in late August was a reminder that in an era of regular Category 5 storms, people’s lives could be catastrophically disrupted again. And should the assemblies grow and become more powerful, they will have to navigate relationships with entrenched politicians, their liberal allies and NGOs that can provide access to resources but often with strings attached.
Whatever happens, the people’s assemblies represent a shift in Puerto Rico’s political activism and organization. They are the product of organizing by grassroots groups that predates the drive to push Rosselló out of office by many years. They are spaces where people seek to imagine something new, a future that has been denied while combating years and years of dissatisfaction with the current political and economic system, which has only benefited the Puerto Rican elite and U.S. corporate interests.